Turkey, through its membership in NATO, has traditionally been viewed as a close ally of Norway but relations between the two countries are strained in the areas of human rights and freedom of the press. Turkey’s recent refusal to allow a correspondent for Norway’s largest newspaper to work in the country is now being widely condemned by top Norwegian politicians and press organizations alike.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende of the Conservative Party said he is “extremely disappointed” that the new correspondent for Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten, Silje Kampesæter, has been denied permanent press credentials and residence permission in Turkey. He took up the issue with Turkey’s own foreign minister during a visit to Ankara last month, and the case has attracted high-level attention among Norwegian officials.
“Turkey plays a central role, both regionally and internationally, and it is therefore unfortunate that Aftenposten’s Middle East correspondent has not received the necessary permission to establish herself in Turkey,” Brende told the newspaper on Tuesday. “I have already taken up the issue with the Turkish foreign minister, and expressed my clear disappointment when he indicated that the refusal to allow Kampesæter to work in Turkey would be upheld.” Brende said his foreign ministry staff was now evaluating how to follow up its objections to the Turkish decision.
The head of the Norwegian Parliament’s foreign relations committee, Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party, is also criticizing what she calls Turkey’s latest “attack on freedom of expression” and said she expects Norway’s Foreign Ministry to follow up on the case.
“We see that more countries are attacking freedom of expression and some of them use terrorism as a reason,” Huitfeldt told Aftenposten. “We put greater demands on Turkey, and I expect the foreign minister and the Foreign Ministry to follow up on this case. Attacks on freedom of expression don’t just hit journalists, but the entire society.”
Huitfeldt was also clearly disappointed by the behaviour of a fellow NATO member. “In the alliance, we also have common values that should be maintained,” Huitfeldt said. “Among them are freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”
Turkey has gained a bad reputation because of its crackdowns on freedom of the press under the increasingly authoritarian rule of its current president and former prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish journalists have had severe problems for years, and their working conditions have long been criticized both at home and abroad. Now the press restrictions are spreading to foreign media as well, with recent crackdowns on broadcasting, use of the Internet and social media as well.
Norway’s Press Federation (Norges Presseforbund) called it “completely unacceptable” for Turkey, not least as a member of NATO, to make it impossible for Aftenposten to establish a correspondent office in the country. “It shouldn’t be possible for a country like Turkey to do something like this,” Kjersti Løken Stavrum, secretary general of the press federation, told Aftenposten. “Unfortunately, it’s not so surprising when we know what kind of conditions apply to the press there. Turkey clearly doesn’t accept a free press.” She said the situation presents a challenge for Norwegian authorities, and she also expects Foreign Minister Brende to follow up the case.
Norway’s foreign ministry was already concerned about the situation in Turkey, with Aftenposten citing a report from diplomats at Norway’s embassy in Ankara last year that the country had descended into “a dark, dark valley where fundamental human rights are threatened in a manner the country hasn’t experienced for many decades.”
Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe and a former Norwegian prime minister, said he’s also prepared to take up the case of the Aftenposten correpondent’s expulsion as well. “We are working actively with Turkish authorities regarding freedom of expression, and have an expert group looking at all aspects of this,” Jagland told Aftenposten. “I know that the (Norwegian) foreign minister has taken this up, and I’m fully willing to see what can be done from my side.”
No written explanation
Turkish authorities, including staff at the Turkish Embassy in Oslo, have refused to give Aftenposten any written rejection of its correpondent’s application for press credentials and working permission in Turkey. Nor have they been willing to explain why she’s not being allowed to work in the country. Kampesæter arrived in Istanbul just last fall and has filed critical reports on Turkish domestic policies. She has also reported from the Kurdish-dominated areas of Southeast Turkey, where civil war-like conditions have existed for the last several months.
After six weeks, her pending application for permanent press credentials and residence was rejected, with no explanation. Aftenposten has filed a formal request for one with the Turkish authorities, asking for the concrete reasons behind the rejection, but reported on Tuesday that’s been turned down as well. “Every application is evaluated based on its own criteria,” an embassy official, Ulku Kocaefe, told Aftenposten. “Turkish authorities don’t express themselves on the reasons why some don’t receive press accreditation, and they haven’t with Silje Kampesæter’s case either.”
German fiancé with Kurdish background
Aftenposten reported that it believes the reason lies with the fact that Kampesæter’s fiancé, a German citizen, is the son of parents (also German citizens) who are of Kurdish background and emigrated from Turkey in the 1970s. Kampesæter’s fiancé moved to Istanbul with her after “hardly being in Turkey earlier,” Kampesæter said. She added that he “hasn’t done anything other than have a Kurdish family background.” Now she fears the Turkish authorities may file some form of trumped-up charges against him, simply so they won’t lose face or be embarrassed over their refusal to allow her working and residence permission.
Foreign Minister Brende said his Turkish colleague stressed that Turkish authorities had nothing against Aftenposten itself, only its choice of correspondent. Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that the Turkish Embassy in Oslo had given it “signals” that the situation could be resolved if the newspaper simply sent a different correspondent. Editor-in-Chief Espen Egil Hansen finds that unacceptable: “It’s Aftenposten that chooses its correspondents, and we believe Silje Kampesæter has done a good job under difficult circumstances. We are assured of her integrity.” He said the newspaper would not comply with Turkey’s demand to send someone else to Turkey,
The organization Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 149th on a list of 180 countries, behind such counties as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, for its lack of press freedom. Now Aftenposten has decided to base its Middle East correpondent back in Amman, Jordan, where it had an office for several years.
“It’s disappointing that we must move the office to Jordan, but that doesn’t mean we will stop reporting on Turkey,” Hansen said.